Tag Archives: dangling modifiers

EDITING 101: 24 – Split Infinitives and Dangling Participles…

This column is near and dear to my heart. I’ve posted on dangling modifiers before, and I see them all the time in my critique groups.

A couple of thoughts:

First, the aversion to “splitting infinitives” comes from an 18th-century spurt of wishfulness that English could be elevated to the status of Latin—in which infinitives are one word and can’t be “split.” Note that in Romance languages like French and Spanish, this still holds true; how can you “split” an infinitive like “hablar”? But English is not a Romance language, despite having picked up many words from French, Spanish, and Italian, in particular. So those “rules” never rightly applied.

Second, note that “to boldly go” is in iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s meter, and a natural meter in English. That’s why “to go boldly” just doesn’t have the same ring.

Dangling modifiers, on the other hand, cause problems for me because there’s a brief mental hiccup when the modifier has to hunt for its appropriate noun or pronoun. Sure, I can figure out who or what is doing the action of the modifier, but do writers really want readers stopping, even for a second, to puzzle?

This column is clear and concise, presenting these issues well. Thanks to both Chris the Story Reading Ape and Adirondack Editing.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

Split Infinitives and Dangling Participles

Editors frequently correct both of these, but one is actually ok to use, while the other is not. Care to make a wager on which one is which before I get started?

Ante up!

What is a split infinitive, after all? It’s a sentence where a word, usually an adverb, interrupts a full verb (or full infinitive). A full infinitive is the verb with the word “to” in front of it—to run, to walk, to spit. The most famous split infinitive is “to boldly go.” Editors and teachers used to mark this as incorrect, but it’s all right to split an infinitive. Some examples are:

  • Lyn continued to quickly run toward the burning building.

  • Willow…

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Describers vs. Prescribers: Reaching a Linguistic Common Ground

The grammar policeman will enforce the grammar rules!

Visit from the Grammar Police!

Reading this piece from Nicholas C. Rossis, I couldn’t help giving a mental high-five. Starting sentences with gerunds (and various other odd bits of language) is absolutely okay! I would caution that starting sentences with -ing forms of verbs can all too easily lead to “dangling modifiers,” for example, “Reading this, it was a really good discussion of an issue we all face.” If you’re not sure why that sentence DOES contain a sentence-structure error, look up “dangling modifiers.” Returning, however, to the question of prescriptive versus descriptive language mavens, I ask only—well, mainly—that the parts of sentences hook up logically so that I can tell what modifies what and who’s doing what.
I have a feeling this is sliding into a rant. Check my series on “How Much Grammar Do You Need,” and here and here, for my largely descriptivist views.

Nicholas C. Rossis

When I published The Power of Six, my first collection of short stories, a reviewer said that the book had grammatical errors, albeit small ones. This shocked me, as the book had been professionally edited and proof-read. So, I reached out and asked her for an example. “You start a sentence with a gerund,” she said. “So?” I asked. “So, that’s wrong.”

I was baffled by this. Surely, that’s a matter of style, right?

This seemingly innocent question actually led me into a minefield. As The Economist points out, for half a century, language experts have fallen into two camps. Most lexicographers and academic linguists stand on one side, and traditionalist writers and editors on the other. The question that defines the to camps is deceivingly simple: should language experts describe the state of the language accurately? (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, in 1961, shocked the world by including common…

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Using -ing Words | The Editor’s Blog

This article provides excellent, detailed discussion. In critique groups I’ve been enrolled in, some critiquers seem terrified of the progressive tenses, and some believe that using a present-participle phrase as a modifier constitutes “mixing tenses” and therefore incorrect. The article is on point that glomming onto such rigid rules limits writers’ options for rhythm and meaning.
And the discussion here of dangling modifiers should be required reading for all aspiring writers. i see so many of these. Otherwise competent writers seem oblivious to them. The examples here precisely mirror what I see. Here’s my rant on dangling modifiers.
I think writers need to READ, widely, and not just the latest free examples of their favorite genre, to see how good writers make use of many available strategies and apply rules thoughtfully rather than blindly.
If you’ve ever been told to cut “-ing” words, take the time to read this!


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Grammar Rules I’m on the Fence On. Are You?

Typewriter with questions marksI’m curious what people think because I am on the fence. Unlike ending a sentence with a preposition, these are not nonsensical non-rules. And unlike using “who” when “whom” is technically called for, they’re not completely invisible—or are they? That’s my question: If you were advising a beginning indie author wanting to self-edit, would these go on your “must know” list?

In fact, very well-credentialed writers do ignore them. Is that enough to move them to “okay to ignore”?

I’ll start with one that seems to have been ripped up and stomped on:

The dangling modifier.

I recall the first time I heard a dangling construction on an episode of NPR’s Nova. What??!! Since then, I’ve seen so many of these that if I had a penny for every one, I could pave my driveway in copper.Sad Editing!

The pattern’s ubiquitous.

“An accomplished author, her books have sold millions.”

“Long known for her steamy romances, her fans number in the millions.”

“His heart broken, the loss of his lover left him devastated.”

“Running across the street, a car almost hit me.”

Does only an ex-English teacher shrivel inside her arid little syntactical shell when the modifier doesn’t modify the noun or noun phrase that immediately follows? When it’s not her books that are an accomplished author? When it’s not her fans that are known for her books? When it’s not the car running across the street?

It’s not that readers can’t make out what goes with what. Is it only an ex-English teacher who shivers in delight when parts of sentences link together so precisely that they’re like the rocks in Inca walls—you couldn’t force a needle between them?

It’s amazing how obviously problematic these seem in isolation. Yet, zoomed over in texts, it can be hard to catch them. (Hah! See?)

But readers know what’s meant perfectly well, don’t they? So what’s the fuss?

Lie and Lay.Writer with questions

I just saw “laying” when it should have been “lying” in a book I deeply respected. Which editor’s job is it to catch this? Am I silly to care?

I’m going to make the radical claim that the English language has decided. “Lie” and “lay” in the progressive tenses (she was lying/laying, he is lying/laying) are interchangeable, as they are in the simple past (he lay/laid down). Let go of it, you hyperventilators! The distinction has deserted you.

Or has it? Is it worth fighting for?

pile of lettersIncomplete comparisons.

If you look this one up online, you’ll be told that you “complete” a comparison by making sure to state what is being compared with what. In other words, it’s “incomplete” if you say that “Painkiller X is better.” You must say better than what. Nor can you say, “Product X has the most nutritious ingredients.” You must designate the category in which nutritious ingredients are being measured. The first hits in an online search tie such “incomplete comparisons” to misleading advertising. These hits are correct: We do hear claims like these all the time. But they’re fairly easy to spot if we’re looking.

However, here’s what seems to be a more subtle form of incomplete comparison, given how often it pops up:

1) Education in Europe is a lot cheaper than the United States.

2) The restaurants in Louisville are better than Cincinnati.

3) My friend’s grammar skills are better than some English teachers.

Here’s a sentence I read this morning in an academic journal (I have changed some relevant nouns lest some enterprising soul try to figure out where it came from):

My years as a low-wage employee have been a lot better than some others at many locations.

Now, one could make the case, given the exceptional level of literacy this writer demonstrates throughout the article, that “some others” here refers to “years,” not other, comparable employees. If the referent is “employee,” however, the sentence would have to read (with the “understood” parts in brackets):

My years as a low-wage employee have been a lot better than [they have been] FOR some others at many locations.

Would you have read this sentence as I did? Would you have revised it, possibly to clarify the referent? What about the others above (1-3)? Would they have jumped out at you if you weren’t looking for them?Torn up drafts

And then there are these:

Each of these, in some camps, is wrong. Yet I bet we read over them as often as we catch them. So. . . if you were editing your own work or your critique partner’s, would you flag these?

Neither of us are going to be there.

The data explains why the theory is wrong.

McDonald’s raised their prices again.

None of us like making mistakes.

Verdicts? Let me know what you think!Woman writing


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